Active Trans Calls for Policies to Reverse Bus Ridership Slump

Photo: John Greenfield
Photo: John Greenfield

Today the Active Transportation Alliance released a new report that analyzes why CTA bus use has dropped in recent years and recommends low-cost ways to shorten travel times and boost ridership. They note that fewer Chicagoans riding the bus means more driving, congestion, and pollution. And as people who can afford to do so abandon buses, revenue decreases and service deteriorates, which disproportionately impacts residents of lower-income communities.

For these reasons, it’s important for us to address this troubling trend through strategies like dedicated bus lanes, faster boarding, and transit signal prioritization. The report also calls for fair enforcement of bus-only lanes, and reforming the regulation of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, which recent studies show are reducing transit use, especially bus ridership.

The report, funded by the TransitCenter foundation, was written with input from the CTA, the Chicago Department of Transportation, and the private sector, as well thousands of straphangers. Its ideas are endorsed by a coalition that includes nine other community organizations and nonprofits.

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Bus speeds have dropped significantly in recent years. Graph: Active Trans

The study notes that while more than half of CTA trips are made by bus, from 2015 to 2016 bus ridership in Chicago fell by more than 15 million rides (5.8 percent). Since 2012, bus ridership has declined by more than 17 percent, and it’s dropped by more than 21 percent since 2008, when the Great Recession hit.

“The next several years present an opportunity to make timely, cost-effective improvements to bus service while continuing to pursue long-term investments in rail modernization and expansion,” the report states. “Upgrading bus service requires leadership from elected officials and city agencies, and a strong and unified push from advocates and community leaders.”

The study blames the drop in ridership on underinvestment in bus service, falling gas prices, the rise of new transportation options like ride-hailing, and an increasing number of workplaces and developments sprawled across the suburbs. Falling gas prices have also led to more driving, and as congestion has gotten worse over the last decade bus speeds have decreased.

To combat this development, the report recommends the following strategies:

  • Create at least 50 miles of dedicated bus lanes and other infrastructure to give high-ridership routes priority
  • Transit signal prioritization – using technology that shortens reds or extends greens to help buses travel more efficiently
  • Prepaid, multi-door boarding

While Chicago has already piloted some of these improvements on the Loop Link and Jeffery Jump corridors, as well as a few bus stops and train stations, Active Trans for expanding these improvements citywide sooner than later, which will require some political muscle.

This report focuses on six of the busiest routes in the system, with some of the highest potential for improvements: #4 Cottage Grove, #8 Halsted, #53 Pulaski, #66 Chicago, #79 79th, and #80 Irving Park. Each of these lines serves millions of customers annually and travels to many destinations in diverse communities, but they’ve seen a drop in ridership.

The report also includes the following policy recommendations and action items:

  • CDOT and CTA develop plan for transit priority streets within two years that includes at least 50 miles of new bus lanes
  • Get a new state law passed allowing photo enforcement of bus lanes
  • Incentivize purchase of CTA multi-day passes, possibly by lowering prices and passing a state law requiring Chicagoland companies with 25 or more employees to offer the transit benefit program
  • Establish a new local dedicated revenue stream to fund transit improvements and expansion
  • Push for more data sharing and analysis of ride-hailing trips though a city ordinance requiring anonymized trip data to be made public

We’ll provide some analysis on the report’s ideas in the near future. In the meantime check out the report yourself and let us know what you think in the comments.

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  • Bus lanes are critical. Ride hailing and AI-autos (auto-autos?) will be making urban congestion increasingly worse where transit is needed most. The sooner that we can reserve that geometry for the most efficient people moving modes the better.

    As I said in my comment in the headlines report on this Active Trans report, there are really no reasons that things can’t be happening now. Bus lanes can be short or long, connected or disconnected and still provide improvement.

    Again the “Daley Parking Steal” is revenue based not parking space based. As you go around the city you will see many many empty metered spaces. Reducing spaces just causes people to use the remaining ones better.

    Also while car drivers notice the disappearance of travel lanes and complain bitterly and vote that way when they can, they really don’t notice so much the disappearance of parking. Yes businesses notice, but there aren’t so many of those voters. Yes they donate to politicians but not like the wealthier and corporate donors.

    Lane appropriation from parking can and needs to be happening now.

  • planetshwoop

    Why can’t I prepay on the bus the same way I do on metra? Meaning, the app is activated and I flash it past the bus driver (or board at another entrance)?

    I would love to see the Ventra implementation added as a shades area to the chart bc I think it influences people’s decisions a little. I could be wrong.

    I am one of those stats btw. I used to reliably take the #53 and now rarely do. Not Uber, or cheap gas, but… My bike. The times biking are really predictable for me. I found waiting for a crowded bus at a gritty underpass or gas station unpleasant and now rarely do it.

  • FlamingoFresh

    Another (more extreme) solution is congestion pricing on corridors during peak hours. Those riding the buses will only have to pay the usual bus fare but people driving their personal vehicle will pay a toll for using the road and ride share users will pay extra for all rides that use those roadways. The money collected on these roads can be used for the CTA and roadway improvements. I like these peak hour congestion pricing on corridors because it doesn’t permanently raise the cost of using ride share, only on tolled corridors during peak hour. Thus, making it still an afford able 3 am option when just getting home safely is the goal.

  • FlamingoFresh

    For the #8 Halsted Bus: An intersection design study needs to be performed at the intersection of Halsted & Beldan. Currently it is a 4-way stop sign controlled intersection and during most parts of the week days and weekends it backs up due to high traffic volumes on all streets. I recommend (if the space is warranted) to construct a roundabout at the intersection and remove the stop signs. I’m sure given a proper study the volumes are low enough that they don’t exceed a one lane roundabout design. This could allow traffic to continually flow from all legs and will reduce delay compared to the current four way stop or a proposed signal. The only concern would be to make a roundabout large enough for the CTA buses to safely and easily navigate.

  • Chicagoan

    CDOT owns the majority of the roads that CTA buses use, right? CDOT is managed by City Hall just like CTA, so don’t they have an interest in making buses as effective at the expense of cars? Every CDOT owned road should have bus-friendly infrastructure.

    Of course, Lake Shore Drive or Lincoln Avenue would be more difficult, because they’re owned by IDOT, but other roads shouldn’t be so welcoming to cars.

  • Tooscrapps

    The enforcement on the southbound bus/bike lane on Clark from Diversey to Armitage is almost non-existent. Poor markings and missing signs further exacerbate the issue.

    The City needs to send a message to the people who think their coffee run is more important than hundreds of bus riders.

  • Combin8tion

    All of these are great ideas and many deserve consideration. But, there is no mention of bus bunching. That is the primary reason I have given up on the bus. I have found myself waiting for 20 minutes or more for a bus to show and then 3, 4 or even 6 buses (Belmont) in row queue. The buses already have the GPS technology to stop this. Simply hold a bus at a stop until an appropriate interval is achieved. Done correctly this would add no more than a few minutes to any ride but it would ensure proper spacing of buses especially on the busy corridors.

  • The CTA, I believe, could begin installing bus cameras for the eventual purpose of issuing tickets to offending cars. Just collecting the data will I believe begin to identify repeat offenders. It might even be legal now to notify such automobile owners that they are breaking the law, even while it is not possible to penalize them now. Collecting the data now also gives them ammunition to present to the General Assembly to bolster their arguments for the legal authority.

  • Tooscrapps

    Could easily go the big fish first: US Foods, Sysco, and the beer distributors who are easily the biggest offenders on that stretch. UPS/Fedex haven’t started making their runs yet, or they’d surely be up there.

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